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The proper APA Style reference for this manuscript is:
Buell, J A (2009). Ways and Whys of Voters. National Undergraduate Research Clearinghouse, 12. Available online at http://www.webclearinghouse.net/volume/. Retrieved September 28, 2023 .

Ways and Whys of Voters
Janice Buell
Department of Pyschology University of Central Missouri

Sponsored by: PATRICIA MARSH (pmarsh@ucmo.edu)



One of the goals of this study is to examine what influences people to vote as they do, whether consciously or unconsciously. The question is how much information actually goes into the                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       thought process of voters? Does it have an effect on their voting? Do people have a visceral reaction in the voting booth to external stimuli?

According to Richard Lau (2006), “Traditional voting models …do little to open the black box that surrounds how information is acquired and used. They typically view the information environment as fixed and exogenous and give voters little role in shaping their own personal information environment”. The purpose of this study is to examine whether voters support is determined by campaign rhetoric or visceral reactions to the candidates

       The Ways and Whys of Voters

Since the beginning, voting has been the cornerstone of our democratic country, and is held as a basic right of its citizens. There are numerous reasons why people vote the ways they do.  Many may go to the polls and select the most familiar sounding names, while others could have undertaken significant research to arrive at their decisions.  Quite possibly people may be influenced without being aware of it.  Their parents may play a role in the way one votes or does not vote,  are they voting what they believe, the way their parents vote or are they voting against the way their parents vote?  What influence do the media have on one’s view, or do people simply make up their mind when a candidate “looks” the part?  According to Lau (2007), “They’re most likely to be influenced by two things…whether they are Democrats or Republicans, liberals or conservatives…and the other factor is people you talk to: your friends, your family, and your neighbors” as cited by Steigerwald.   This influence has been found to direct a person’s choices as they step into a voting booth, whether a person votes as they were brought up or in rebellion of it. Robert Longley (2008) found that 65% of people believed “conversations with their families and local newspapers were influential sources of information when it comes to making voting decisions”.  The media also has its role as a source since the news shows have an influential rate of 60-64%. Since it would be expected that each voter would indeed vote the issues that would be most important to them, then does the voter vote in their own self interest or what is best for the whole. It would be nice to think that voters see the big picture and vote for what might be in the best interest of the country rather than vote a single issue, or even vote for the person that is more attractive.

Krueger and Acevedo, (2008) developed a theory of “evidential decision making” which states “evidential decision making recognizes that no individual voter has a detectable causal effect on the outcome of a large-scale election” (468). They argue that voters’ belief in a difference in the outcome is negligible, and truly has no significant impact. Citizens know and understand that their votes build one upon the other as snowflakes and recognize that although it takes only one vote to win a race, in their mind that one vote could be theirs. According to Gonzales & Tyler, and Harder & Krosnick (2008), “Two prevalent justifications include expressive voting (i.e., voting feels good and it contributes to one’s reputation as a responsible citizen) and civic-duty voting (i.e., to vote is to pay the price for living in a democracy” (as cited in Krueger & Acevedo, 2008, p.467). These are two probable reasons why anyone would want to vote and would consider it worth their time and effort to do so.  Also, people believe it may be in their own best interest to vote, they feel if they do not vote, they do not have the right to voice any disapproval of politics or the outcomes of elections.  According to Joachim and Acevedo (2008), “The question is whether people overclaim their own effect even in a large-scale election (471). Riker and Ordeshook (1968) thought that they do, and Opp (2001) boldly claimed that “there is a widespread cognitive illusion among ordinary people that participation in an election makes a difference. In other words, citizens more or less assume that they can influence the outcome of an election’ (p.357). Using data from 3,206 participants in the German equivalent of the U.S. General Social Survey, Opp’s (2001) analysis turned on the responses to the prompt “Please tell me to what extent you personally could exert influence in politics when you participate in elections”(p.364), the average response was 4.94 on a 7-point scale. (Opp,2001).  People do believe that when their individual vote is combined with other likeminded individuals then their vote does indeed make a difference.

Stein, Leighley, & Owens’ (2005), report examines a few of the countless reasons people vote or not.  Reasons may range from the inconvenience of voting at a designated time and place, to their being required to register well in advance of election day.  Today’s fast paced world of short attention spans and instant gratification, people simply find the time and associated cost of taking the time to stop and vote to be prohibitive. Especially if they perceive the expected benefit may not outweigh the ‘nuisance’ for them to do so.  As seen in the past 2008 election with early voting in a number of states, people stood in line for hours anticipating an even longer wait on Election Day. For these people the expected benefit from casting their vote was far greater than the inconvenience of standing in line for eight hours.  Along with the reduction of some of the ‘institutional rules’ such as everyone voting at the same times and places on election day, a greater relaxation of voter registration would also increase the voter turnout. According to Wolfinger, Glass and Squire (1987) voter “turnout would increase almost 9% with a relaxation of registration laws that constrain voting among mobile populations (10)” as cited by Stein, Leighley, & Owens (2005). Another expectancy is that the more education a person has, the greater access to information they have and therefore is more likely to vote.  Stein, Leighley & Owens (2005) reason that “Social networks might provide a way of disseminating information so that more dense social networks help to spread information for potential voters, so that more coverage might lead to more turnout. Spirited races are also more likely to involve larger campaigns with the media and campaigns making more information available to the public. Another behavior associated with voting may be habit. But this encompasses many reasons/questions within itself. Does someone vote because of a precedent being set by a parent voting such as going along with that parent when they vote? If voting is habitual then what effects does voting for a losing ticket over a winning ticket maintain? Normally people who are not occasionally rewarded will change their behavior. So will this contribute to more of awareness and possibly being involved in the campaigns? According to several researchers, Brody and Sniderman (1977), Nownes (1992), Plutzer (2002), “previous voting behavior predicts current voting behavior.”  However, this does not take into account the thousands that voted for the first time in this 2008 election. It may have been the lack of trust in the previous government and people believing it was time for a new direction, in addition to them being told that their vote does matter. Timpone (1998) finds “that lower trust in government seemed to mobilize voters, contrary to previous expectations.” This seems to have been the case with the 2008 Presidential election. As a greater dissatisfaction with the government in Washington, along with a ‘get out the vote’ campaign, led to record breaking crowds at the polls.  This new political efficacy may now lead to a greater habitual voter turnout in future elections. According to Cox,(2003), Holbrook, Krosnick, Visser, Gardner, & Cacioppo, (2001), & Timpone,(1998) “People who are especially trusting of others are more likely to vote. Perhaps distrustful people think of the political system as corrupt, which might sap their motivation to participate. But low levels of interpersonal trust might also sometimes inspire higher turnout if lack of trust motivates people to take action to minimize the damage they might fear others might inflict” As cited by Harder and Krosnick (2008).  As we have seen polls refer to different states as red states or blue states, the people in these states may feel that they belong to a particular group referred to as group socialization. This may also be true of smaller groups a person belongs to, if the majority of their friends are voting a particular way they may feel compelled to vote the same way in order to be included.

Of course one of the reasons a person is more likely to vote is the difference between the candidates. If they have a definite preference for one candidate over the other, the more likely they will be to see their vote as having value. The more motivated the voter, the more influence he or she may have on family and friends.  Especially if said family and friends have no interest of their own in learning about the candidates or issues.   If the candidates appear too similar they may have little influence with the voters to motivate them to make a choice. Similarly in recent years the use of negative campaigning may have caused many voters to become disenchanted with the whole system, while with others it may have spurred them to the polls. According to Clinton & Lapinski,(2004), Lau & Pomper,(2001), (Martin, 2004) another theory asserts “that negative ads exert no overall effect on turnout, because they depress turnout among some individuals and stimulate it among others as cited by Harder and Krosnick (14).

As with any study there may be more questions raised than answers found, one study may contradict another. This study attempts to discover if voters are changing their rationale when they vote. In today’s busy world when campaigns begin two years before the final election, do voters pay attention to the candidates and the issues or do they vote the way family or friends encourage them to? Do they get the majority of information from them or from the media? And finally, does the attractiveness of the candidate sway voters?



The Ways and Why of Voters






            The participants in this study consist of 91 college students. They came from various economic backgrounds and while most are early collage age, a number were unconventional college students. The students could access the survey on the University’s research website and did receive extra credit for participation. They consisted of 24 males and 67 women.



            The survey was created by the researcher and located on the University’s research


 website where students who wished to could participate. The survey consisted of


multiple choice as well as questions answered on a Likert scale. After reviewing the data,


entering it into an excel database so that it could be coded and transferred into SPSS. The data


was then measured by a one-way ANOVA for finding the significance in the media chosen for


information on the issues as well as the media chosen for information on the candidates.  An


Anova was also ran to find significance for the issues that males/females preferred. A Chi


Square test of independence was then used to compare the expected and observed frequencies


for media chosen on issues vs. candidates. A correlation was also conducted to look for


significance of attraction in voting for a candidate.




            The procedure consisted of a questionnaire/survey that encompassed questions to ascertain the thoughts and influences’ affecting a person’s voting choices.  The survey was an online survey that was taken on the University’s Sona research website. It was advertised on the Psychology department’s bulletin board with the address of the website given. Students could sign onto the website; agree to the consent form, then take the survey which consisted of 37 questions.  There were two questions on types of media preferred, 28 measured on a Likert Scale, two yes/no, as well as two with demographics (see appendix). There were no questions asked that could be used to identify the participant, guarantying complete anonymity. After completion of the survey, the participants were then granted 3 extra credits for a participating class. 



            In analyzing the data for this study, the original hypothesis was not supported. However,  on the question of a visceral reaction to the candidate which was scored on an attractiveness correlation with age as the independent variable and questions on attractiveness the dependent variable, (who finds the candidate more appealing, trustworthy, and truthful) there was no significant difference. On the question of campaign rhetoric which was run on a one-way analysis of variance (ANOVA) using 12 of the questions on issues, four issues were found to have significance, showing more importance to women than men, these were the candidates health policy, college aid, banking regulations, & environmental issues. (see table 1). Using a Chi Square Test of Independence, it was determined that TV ranked highest of the media voters use to gather information. Following TV was friends, newspapers, other, and radio (see table 2).




            The purpose of this study was to examine whether voter support is determined by campaign rhetoric or visceral reactions to the candidates. It was expected that visceral reactions to the candidates would have some basis in their attractiveness, that this would have an influence in how voters saw the candidates in their trust worthiness, truthfulness, whether they are seen in a more positive light. It was also hypothesized that voters would receive the bulk of their information from friends and family, and therefore vote accordingly. Both of these were not supported. Smith, A. (2009) in a survey conducted by Pew Research, the internet played a much more important role in the 2008 election. It showed that 74% of internet users went online to gather information about the candidates or the issues. As a limitation of this survey, (Whys and Ways of Voters) this market share of the media was inadvertently left off and if conducted again, should be added. Also, instead of presenting choices of media, it should have been ranked in order of importance to the voter taking the survey. The analysis of this survey also used male/female as well as age as an independent variable. However, the limitations of this was such that those college students answering the survey were approximately three quarters female, with only a minor mixture of people in the age bracket above traditional college students of 18-25. If conducting this study again, it is suggested that a larger, more diverse population be used. The original intent of this survey was to find the influence of attractiveness on voters and if they would vote for the more attractive candidate consistently. This survey contained only limited questions in this area and it would be of great interest if it were conducted with greater detail in this area which would include pictures to choose from.

Submitted 05/07/2009
Accepted 05/28/2009

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